Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Reject and Protect: Cowboy Indian Alliance Takes a Stand Against the KXL

By: Sophia Sparksworthy, WEA Intern

"The [Cowboy Indian Alliance] asks President Obama a simple question: Is an export pipeline for dirty tar sands worth risking our sacred land and water for the next seven generations?"— Reject and Protect, Call to Action

Photo by Mike Hudema

In an effort to tap into domestic oil supplies between the United States and Canada, the construction of a massive pipeline to transport the oil from the tar sands in Canada to the Gulf of Mexico has been underway since 2005.  But brave opposition to the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline—led by Indigenous groups and leaders, environmental and social justice organizations, and community activists—has grown with increased public awareness about the environmental and social impacts it poses.

In recent weeks, and after years of organized resistance, prolonged reports, and court rulings, President Barack Obama's administration announced that its final decision on whether or not to approve the Keystone XL Pipeline has been delayed indefinitely by the State Department.  This announcement came in the midst of the Reject and Protect rally in Washington DC, and signified a new opportunity for continued and amplified resistance to dirty oil.

The rally and accompanying encampment, which ran from Earth Day, April 22nd, through Sunday, April 27th, was the result of a fierce and historic partnership between tribal communities, ranchers, and farmers from Nebraska, Minnesota, and North and South Dakota living in the pipelines direct path who came together to form the Cowboy Indian Alliance.  Their unified mission is to reject the pipeline and protect the sanctity and well-being of their health, livelihoods and traditional lands.  Among the thousands of allies, supporters and demonstrators who stood in solidarity with the Cowboy Indian Alliance was their own Dallas Goldtooth, representatives from the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation, the Cheyenne River Sioux and the Yankton Sioux Nation, Honor the Earth, Bold Nebraska, musician Niel Young and actress/activist Daryl Hannah, and many more.

Photo by Mark Hefflinger / BOLD Nebraska

Reject and Protect kicked off with the establishment of the encampment at the National Mall.  Over 24 ranchers and tribal members from the Cowboy Indian Alliance rode on horseback from the Capitol to the encampment to signify the official start of the five-day event.  Members of the alliance helped to construct a hand painted tipi as a gift to President Obama, which was presented to the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian on Saturday, April 26th.  The tipi's adornment of blue and green lines, trees, horses, stars and fingerprints were representations of the sacred connection between people and their environment, and the Cowboy Indian Alliance's hopes for protected land and clean water.

Each day of the encampment was initiated with a Traditional Water Ceremony in the morning to highlight the threat the Keystone XL poses to our waters, and consisted of various forms of action against the pipeline.  This included meetings with environmental leaders and the White House, where members of the Cowboy Indian Alliance were able to voice their concerns about the pipeline and the use of tar sands; a projection of comments against the pipeline across the Environmental Protection Agencies offices; a protest at the Lincoln Memorial meant to demonstrate the injustice tribal community members and ranchers face when speaking up for themselves and the earth, while corporations such as TransCanada are able to operate with little accountability for their enviornmentally destructive practices; and an interfaith prayer ceremony which was brought to Secretary of State John Kerry's front yard.

Photo by Rae Breaux

The closing ceremony at the White House on the encampment's final day allowed all of those involved with the resistance to the Keystone XL to be heard.  The ceremony signfied the end of one chapter of strong and unified resistence against the pipeline, as well as the opportunity to increase resistence and our alliances in the coming weeks and months.

Reject and Protect truly was a call to action and a chance to begin building even stronger partnerships to protect communites and the earth as we move forward toward a future that respects our communities and our joint responsiblity to care for and safeguard our planet.

WEA is humbled and inspired by the work that was done in Washington DC, and offers our heartfelt thanks and support to those involved.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Meet our Spring Interns!

What's amazing, and talented and leaves us thinking it's too good to be true?  

Our WEA intern team!  

We have some serious love for these ladies – and for all of the rockstar interns who have supported WEA over the years.  They help us not only during our big events, but also in the day-to-day running of things, making our work not only possible, but THRIVE.

Because we adore them and their awesome skills, we wanted to introduce our current spring interns to all of you. 

We'd also like to send a big heartfelt hug and thanks to some of our previous interns from last fall and early winter: Molly Garritson, Monica Boardman, Germaine Lau and Bess Zewdie.


1. Tell us about yourself! What is your background and what has been your journey to WEA?  Born and raised in Lake Tahoe, I have always had a deep connection with nature.  Ever since I was little I felt very lucky to be blessed with the wilderness as my playground.  My connection with the wild inspired me to want to protect the bounty and beauty our planet has to offer.  Despite my love for the outdoors, growing up in a small town drove me to San Francisco to attend San Francisco State University to graduate with a Degree in International Relations, and a minor in Russian.

In my five and half years in the Bay Area, I have come to appreciate the vibrancy and vitality that comes from thriving urban communities.  I began to see disparities between communities and individuals more clearly than ever, and decided it would be one of my missions in life to help make positive changes.  After volunteering for community organizations, I realized my passions were focused around global injustices particular to the environment (water especially).  Seeing the work WEA did, I was able to see my two passions linked together to help communities thrive through supporting women.

2. What do you do at WEA?  My role at WEA involves supporting the general operations of the organization, like administrative assistance, and helping to maintain donor relations.  I am also working to support the Advocacy Network, which allows me a wonderful opportunity to research potential and current Indigenous environmental movements and efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change.  Part of this role includes blogging about these significant efforts made by Indigenous communities and organizations.

3. Share 2 unique things about you that your co-workers do not know.  Two unique things my co-workers might not know are that I have been belly dancing since I was 13 years old, and am currently teaching myself how to costume design.  Rather than keep pets, I raise carnivorous plans as well.

4. What do you see as the biggest challenge in the intersection of women and the environment?  The biggest challenge I see globally for the intersection of women and the environment is access.  Access to the resources, training, and participation in the decision-making process necessary to have more power in maintaining our ecosystems, and having a role in protecting the future of this planet.

5. Tell us about a woman who inspires you and why.  One woman who I find to be extremely inspirational for her strength to resist the USSR and create change for so many is Maria Cherkasova.  As a Russian journalist and ecologist during Soviet rule, she forced the government to adopt an environmental program, and address some of the severe ecological issues of the time.  Since then, she has run the largest environmental NGO in the former Soviet Republic.

6. Tell us one thing that surprised you about being at WEA.  I was surprised by the amount that play and work are incorporated together.  I was even more surprised to see the results of this combination with an incredible amount being accomplished.

7. What do you hope to get out of your time at WEA?  From my time at WEA, I hope to gain a strong understanding of the issues women face globally, and the surrounding climate change.  More importantly, I hope to gain a meaningful understanding for what people are doing to solve these problems, and what those efforts take logistically, financially, and personally.  I hope to gain the hands-on experience and skills that can be utilized for any cause I may involve myself in.

– Social Media Intern 
1. Tell us about yourself! What is your background and what has been your journey to WEA?  I grew up in Southern and Northern California, spending my school year in Los Angeles and winters and summers in Truckee near Lake Tahoe.  I was raised with an appreciation for the outdoors and a moral code to conserve our natural beauty.  Studying environmental economics in college, with geography, photography, and French as my minors, only crystallized those passions.

I graduated in December 2013 from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, and moved to the Bay Area.  I knew that while I was studying for the GRE and advancing my long-term goals of pursuing a graduate level degree in economics and natural resource management, I also wanted to gain some experience working with a non-profit organization doing international development or environmental work.  When I found WEA it was like my dreams had come true.  The organization seemed to be involved in everything I was interested in: development, sustainability, empowering women, co-powering organizations, and environmental management.  At the time I applied, they had no internships available, but I stuck with it and kept in touch, and soon enough one opened up!

2. What do you do at WEA?  I am the Social Media Intern at WEA.  I manage the daily postings on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, spread awareness of WEA's mission and projects, and connect with other like-minded organizations.  It allows for a lot of creative control and collaboration with the rest of the staff.

3. Share 2 unique things about you that your co-workers do not know.  I have a pet bird named Stella who travels with my family and me on any road trips we take!  I also would love to open an artisanal dairy products shop one day.

4. What do you see as the biggest challenge in the intersection of women and the environment?  Women, all over the world (including the West), need to be empowered.  They need to be empowered to realize that they hold the key to sustainable change and have access to the resources they need.  This empowerment lies in education (of resources, skills, ability to evoke change) and community building (within their own community, and outside communities and organizations).  The combination of these two factors equips women with the confidence and resources that they need to save our environment.

5. Tell us about a woman who inspires you and why.  My mother inspires me.  After being a stay-at-home mother for 18 years, she decided to go back and get a Masters degree in what she truly loved at the age of 50.  Not until she was 52 did she start her career and now she is a powerhouse!  She did not let age or time keep her from achieveing her dreams.
6. Tell us one thing that surprised you about being at WEA.  I was suprised at how comfortable I immediately felt at WEA.  The office feels like a home, and even though I can work remotely, I prefer to go into the office.  With that, the staff is incredibly sweet, helpful, and enjoyable to be around.

7. What do you hope to get out of your time at WEA?  I hope to be surrounded by like-minded individuals who are looking for unique and pragmatic approaches to environmental sustainability.  I hope to be inspired by and inspire my co-workers.  I hope to learn the workings of an environmental non-profit.  I also enjoy learning about social media, marketing, and public relations best practices.

Meet the rest of the talented interns that have worked with WEA throughout the years here!

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Threat to Sacred Waters and Ways of Life for California Indigenous Communities

By: Sophie Sparksworthy, WEA Intern

"Indigenous peoples have the right to the conservation and protection of the environment and the productive capacity of their lands or territories and resources." — Article 29, UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

The Klamath River, Northern California.
Photo source: USFWS Pacific Southwest Region
--> The physical health and cultural well-being of Indigenous communities are threatened by increasing environmental degradation.  Negative ecological impacts from extractive industries, energy plants or refineries, and the contamination of hazardous waste on Indigenous lands compromises the survival of Indigenous communities both globally and locally.  Indigenous communities are in an ongoing fight to restore their ecosystems to meet their present needs, but they are also challenged with ensuring the integral parts of the environment remain intact for future generations.

The continued degradation of each component of our ecosystem has serious implications for the species and cultures that inhabit them.  Of these impacted components, waterwhich for many Indigenous cultures in inextricably linked to subsistence, spiritual practices, and traditionshas become increasingly threatened by prevailing long-term issues and the emergence of new ones.  Along with long-standing water related issues like contamination, Indigenous communities are also faced with increased threats to water supplies from climate change.  This is especially true in California, where the third year of drought has created a state of emergency.  The effects of the drought combined with California's attempts to follow the national push towards energy independence through increased fracking poses an even greater threat to the vitality of Indigenous lifeways and the ecosystems we all depend on.

Mercury Contamination in California

"Indigenous women are life givers, life sustainers and culture holders.  Our bodies are sacred places that must be protected, honored and kept free of harmful contaminants in order for the new generations of our Nations to be born strong and healthy." Declaration for the Health, Life and Defense of Our Lands, Rights and Future Generations, Report of the International Indigenous Women's Environmental and Reproductive Health Symposium, 2010.

For California Indigenous communities, the fight to protect the quality and supply of water has been a very real threat for centuries, particularly due to the regions history of mining and gold extraction.  Sediments and other hazardous materials like methylmercury have contaminated land and aquatic habitats and have had adverse health effects that vary based on the age and level of exposure an individual has.  This exposure can cause damage to both the nervous and immune systems, with the worst case scenario being death.

Photo source: Coastal Creature
Indigenous communities have experienced the impacts of mercury poisoning first hand, with deaths among older generations who had been chronically exposed without their knowledge.  Unfortunately, the threats of contamination are still present, especially for future generations.  For pregnant women, mercury can cause irreversible damage to unborn children, inhibiting normal brain development, and in more severe cases causing developmental and mental birth defects.  For Indigenous communities in which fish is a traditional food source and whose cultures cannot be separated from this critical relationship, the tragic choice becomes one between health and identity.

These issues of water contamination in California are also not isolated, with high levels of mercury found in waterways such as: Lake Berryessa, Clear Lake, New Almaden and New Idria, the American, Bear, Feather and Yuba Rivers, and the San Francisco Bay.  The international and regional response by authorities to the contamination issues California tribes such as the Pomo, Maidu, Yurok, Karuk and Winnemem Wintu face has been minimal in comparison to the scale of the problem.

Indeed, while EPA clean ups have been more frequent since the 1990's and advisory warnings about fish contamination have been issued, this has done little to address the fact that tribes are unable to exercise their traditional fishing treaty rights—and the threat of further pollution is ongoing.  To this end, in 2005, the International Indian Treaty Council (IITC) filed an international complaint against the United States asserting that the contamination Indigenous communities faced was a human rights violation.  In the complaint, the National Tribal Environmental Council (NTEC) provided testimony which stated:
"The proposed UMR [the EPA's Utility Mercury Reduction] rule fails to protect and preserve federal treaty trust resources, such as hunting and fishing rights, which are considered integral to many tribes continued existence...Instead, EPA instructs these groups—and particularly children and women of childbearing age—to reduce or eliminate fish from their diets in order to 'avoid' the risks of mercury contamination.  Thus, rather than take steps to reduce meaningfully the sources of these risks, EPA shifts the burden to those who are exposed and asks them to protect themselves."
While these and other efforts are critical and ongoing, some communities fear that the response—if any— will be too slow to address the severity of the issue.  California's Indigenous tribes are at an extremely high risk for ongoing contamination, with some estimates stating that the current rate of clean up will leave the land and water contaminated for the next 10,000 years.  Despite the slow progress of the State and Federal governments, organizations like IITC and the California Indian Environmental Alliance, alongside a network of Indigenous and environmental groups, have helped communities fight for the right to information about contamination, and to expedite the process to have their ecosystems and traditional ways of life protected.

Climate Change and Drought in the West

Effect of the drought on the Uvas Reservoir.
Photo source: Don DeBold

For Indigenous communities, the fear of losing traditional ways of life connected with water is further exacerbated by another devastating issue.  The third year of drought in California has forced Governor Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency.  As a result of water resource allocation focused on supplying both Southern California's reservoirs and the water needed for the State's massive agricultural industry, much of the limited water supply in Northern California's reservoirs has already been drained.

For tribes in Northern and Central California, this means that traditional species of fish like steelhead and chinook salmon will no longer be protected as their habitats shrink to meet the demands of the rest of the state's water needs.  Indeed, proposed solutions to meet the state's water demands include constructing large underground pipes to transport water from the top of the state to the bottom.  The Winnemem Wintu have been some of the strongest voices opposing this plan because it threatens the survival of salmon and other native fish populations that many in California—Native and non-Native alike—rely on.

Don't Frack California

Indigenous communities often face more than one threat at a time to their ecosystems and cultural survival.  Instead, we see the threats to traditional ways of life coming from multiple directions at once.  Thus, along with efforts to reduce contamination and water supplies, tribes must also resist the forces of extractive industries, which leave ecosystems traumatized.  Some of the most recent national and local resistance against extractive industries has focused on hydraulic fracturing, the high pressure blasting of water and chemicals in the earth in order to produce gas and oil—commonly known as fracking.

Not only does fracking contribute to water, air and land pollution, as well as climate change, but the human health hazards are equally frightening, with chemicals used in the blasting being linked to birth defects, and even infertility.  In California, though resistance is gaining in strength, the mainstream debate as to whether or not to continue fracking is still underway.

In recent months, the Don't Frack California campaign has gained significant momentum, with over 4,000 peopleincluding Indigenous community members, environmental advocates, and concerned citizens—expressing their opposition to fracking in Sacramento on March 15th.  As a result of the efforts leading up to this rally, in February a moratorium (SB 1132) was introduced to prevent continual and future extractive industries like fracking from operating in the state.  California's resistance to fracking is only part of a national resistance movement that is supported by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous advocates and activists alike.

Women's Earth Alliance encourages all our friends to be good allies: learn more about these critical issues California Indigenous peoples face and do your part to support efforts to end the destruction of their traditional lands, waters, and ways of life. 

For more information on mercury contamination, please visit the International Indian Treaty Council or Earthjustice's Cleaning Up Mercury, Protecting Our Health Campaign.  To learn more about the effects of California's drought on Indigenous communities and native species, visit Restore the Delta and the National Resource Defense Council.  And to further understand how the drought effects Indigenous communities in Northern California, please visit the tribal website of the Winnemem Wintu and the Yurok people.